This Year, We’re Vacationing Instead of Filling Our House with Gifts

family walking on a beach in Costa Rica iStock

I didn’t plan for my family to spend Christmas in a jungle surf town.

I checked the tickets on a whim one night. My husband was at a work event, so I was flying solo at home with our kids, ages 10 and two. We’d made it through the daily chaos that starts as soon as I close my work laptop. I picked up my oldest from his after-school program (late enough so I could almost finish working, but early enough that he wasn’t the last to leave). Next, we dashed to daycare to get the little one. A quick stop at home before swim practice, then back again to heat up leftovers, check homework, and clean up from the day.


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As the boys played quietly, I eyed the collection of toy trucks, trains, crayons, and books covering our living room floor. It was only October, but I could see the holidays looming. Did my kids really need more stuff, I wondered?

Make no mistake: I love the holidays. The decorating, traditions, parties, everything. And in our home, December is huge because we celebrate both Christmas and Hanukkah. It’s important to me that my children feel connected to both parents’ religious and cultural traditions, but it requires coordinating and planning—and, as in many families, most of the holiday planning falls on me. On top of everything, this time of year has been hard for me since losing my parents a few years ago. Before they died, I would never have dreamed of spending Christmas anywhere else, and I’ve struggled to carve space for new traditions.

An idea began to take shape. What if we traded our usual holiday presents for something different—an experience we’d never forget—rather than more gift cards, stuffed animals, or video games? I grabbed my computer.

I’ll just check and see if there are deals, I told myself. What could it hurt?

After a bit of digging, something caught my eye: a nonstop flight to Costa Rica that was a fraction of the other record-high airfares. There was only one catch: we would have to fly out on Christmas morning.

I was tempted, but nervous. Would the kids be okay without the usual Christmas rituals? Would I? I glanced at the messy living room and considered how much we would spend on presents otherwise.

I put the tickets on hold. I needed more time to decide. Yet, as I mulled over this new possibility, the answer seemed obvious.

My husband and I love to travel, and when we had our first child we couldn’t wait to show him the world. He played in the Caribbean sand at six months, ate crickets in Oaxaca as a four-year-old, looked for basilisk lizards in Belize at five, and rode trains through France the week after first grade ended. We hunted for flight deals, ate street food, and managed to rack up some passport stamps before the pandemic put a damper on our budget travel adventures.

Related: Our Guide to the Best Things to Do & See with Kids in Paris

Our youngest, born in the early COVID-19 lockdowns, has clocked far less mileage. While he’s flown a few times, toddler travel can be tricky, and our family’s hectic schedule makes it even harder. Nonetheless, I made sure to get both kids new passports in the summer—just in case.

As I thought about it more, the decision became clear. I asked my oldest how he felt about the idea of a surf trip, and he couldn’t believe his ears. Howler monkeys, sea turtles, and a whole new country? Let’s do it! My husband was shocked at first (“But you love Christmas!” he reminded me) but came around. As for the toddler, he keeps asking when we can go to the airport and take another airplane. Everyone’s on board.

Yes, we have a tree (okay, two). And the kids will get some very small gifts for Hanukkah and on Christmas Eve, but Christmas Day is go time—and it’s going to be amazing. By mid-afternoon, I plan to be on a Costa Rican beach, digging sand castles with my toddler while my husband and 10-year-old paddle out on their surfboards. We’ll watch an amazing seaside sunset, catch some fresh fish from the shore, and look for monkeys and toucans from our rental condo.

Am I nervous? Sure. But I can’t wait. Besides, the holiday season isn’t about stuff—it’s about love and family. And who knows, perhaps this will be the start of a new tradition.

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